One is the loneliness number

Richard Handler on the rising scourge of loneliness.

The other day a woman I hadn't seen in years stopped by my office. "You know my partner died," she said (I didn't). Her partner was a man she didn't live with but, for 30 years, they were intimately connected.

They spoke frequently by phone throughout the day, when she arose in the morning and just before she went to sleep at night. They shared stories, gossip, dreams and jokes and were probably bound up more closely than most married couples.

Then one day, as the obits say, he "suddenly" dropped dead from a heart attack.

"I have never felt such loneliness," this woman told me, even though she had lived alone for years. Now she was aching as if her very soul had been hollowed out. She said she now understood the true meaning of loneliness.

Drifting apart

Being lonely isn't something people tend to admit to. According to Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, a married team of Harvard Medical School psychiatrists, many of their patients, especially women, come into their offices announcing all their troubles. (Depression? Yup, got it.)

But hardly anyone admits to being simply lonely, say the authors of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century.

Being lonely is like being in high school and admitting you're a loser, perhaps the most humiliating term in the universe (or at least North America).

Americans live in a land that is obsessed with success — social and financial — and we Canadians come a pretty close second.

We are not supposed to be lonely. But according to the "loneliness experts," many are and the condition is getting worse. Consider some of the signs.

One of the fastest growing trends in recent decades — accelerating since 2000, according to StatsCan — has been the rise in single-person households.

In 2006, they represented 26.8 per cent of all households in Canada, 27.1 per cent in the U.S. In 1940, the number was 6.8 and seven per cent, respectively.

Of course, living alone can be a sign of mobility and affluence. People who live alone could be deliriously busy (that's Americans' favourite boast, say Olds and Schwartz).

But being "deliriously busy" can be part of the problem.

As Duke University researchers report, between 1985 and 2004, the number of confidants with whom the average person discussed personal and important matters dropped from three to two.

More importantly, "the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters, tripled." Individuals without a single confidant now make up nearly a quarter of those surveyed.

We North Americans may be texting and talking more on our cellphones, but real heart-to-heart conversations appear to be on the decline. Understandable, perhaps: it's hard to spill out your heart in 140 Twittery characters.

Human connection

Now, you might ask, what exactly is loneliness? What makes it different from, say, depression?

Psychologists have argued there is an epidemic of depression in our culture. Maybe lonely people are simply depressed, part of a plague of mood disorders.

Not according to University of Chicago psychologist, John Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

Cacioppo, who has studied loneliness for 30 years, thinks it's important to make a distinction.

Depression makes you apathetic while lonely people want to "affiliate." They want human connection. Cacioppo defines loneliness as "social pain."

For Cacioppo, loneliness is a warning sign. It "triggers feelings of threat and dread." He even has a shorthand formula for the two conditions: "Loneliness reflects how you feel about your relationships. Depression reflects how you feel, period."

A downward spiral

Unfortunately, lonely people can be their own worst enemies. The research shows that lonely people are socially inept and clumsy. They trip all over themselves trying to escape from their solitary existence.

Lonely people lose the ability to "read" social cues in others. When they fail to connect, they can get more obtuse and aggressive. Other people avoid them, so they grow lonelier. Then they don't understand why they can't connect.

As the song from the band Three Dog Night laments, "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do."

We've all seen (or felt) such bumbling activity. Psychologists can actually divide up groups of people into Ins and Outs and create lonesome feelings in the lab, proving that disconnection can be manufactured.

The Loneliness Scale

Psychologists even have a test to measure the state of disconnection. It's called the UCLA Loneliness Scale. You can take it yourself.

These are the first three questions:

1.) How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone? 2.) How often do you feel you have no one to talk to? 3.) How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?

According to Cacioppo, loneliness is also a health issue. The immune systems in most lonely people are less robust. Like those who are depressed, lonely people get sicker. They consume more unwholesome foods.

Disconnected people also don't score as well as others on cognitive tests. IQ is probably affected by loneliness.

An unnatural condition

But here's the good news: Cacioppo is part of a new breed of evolutionary psychologists who think loneliness is an unnatural condition. It's a symptom, like physical pain, a signal that something is wrong.

Our ancient ancestors banded together in small, tribal groups. But today we live in cities of millions and don't know our neighbours. We avert our gaze from strangers. You never know who you'll provoke if your eyes meet on a big-city bus.

But there is a hopeful message in all this evolutionary psychology. It is that we humans are not built to be socially isolated.

We are "wired" for connection, say not only the psychologists but the brain scientists.

Properly attuned humans and communities regulate themselves. They form strong social ties, researchers say, which are the keys to lasting happiness.

So when you hear calls for "community" and want to dismiss them as clichés, remember that underneath the whining and cant is an evolutionary imperative. We are not intended to be solitary islands, as the good poet said.